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What Flamethrowers and Facebook Ads Taught Me About Marketing

As the saying goes: "You can't be everything to everyone."

In 2018, after making the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, I realized that the impact our business had on our small community was nothing short of phenomenal. We succeeded in building something our town had never seen. I remember thinking, How did we get here? And is this as far as we can go? Looking back, I’ve realized that what we did was indeed incredible, but also replicable.

I first launched Southern Designs as a screen printing business. I was coaching a pee wee football team alongside my high school buddies and we wanted t-shirts for the parents and supporters of our team. Over the next few years we scaled to a thriving printing enterprise and then eventually pivoted into a personalized sign company. Investing over 10 years and over $5 million in Facebook ads, I learned a lot about marketing and sales and how people react to the messaging you put in your marketing efforts.

Since closing Southern Designs this year after over $40 million in revenue generated, I’ve had time to reflect and write down some of the biggest marketing and sales lessons from my 15 years operating this company. I’ve realized that my learnings can help others in small towns working to grow their companies with their marketing messages online. They may not all apply to your situation, but they were core to our success.

Stacks of packages waiting to be picked up at our shipping facility. Our warehouse looked like this every day for a number of years.

Human to Human Selling

For a number of years now, many people have begun to hide behind their screens more and more. From the beginning, Southern Designs was a business that focused on going over and above for its customers and treating each one of them with the same level of service we would expect from any other business. Over the years I was witness to the effect of having human connections with people instead of treating them like another number. It helped mold my view on marketing and sales, and ultimately, business growth.

Storytelling & Brand Narrative

In the bustling world of online businesses, many entrepreneurs wonder, "How can I make my brand pop?" The key might be simpler than you think. It's about sharing stories—the real tales of how your brand came to be, what it stands for, and where it's heading.

Every brand has a starting point. Mine was volunteer coaching a pee wee football team. Maybe yours began in a corner of your home or from a simple idea during a chat at the local coffee shop. Sharing where you began doesn’t just give people some background—it makes your brand feel real. It’s like telling neighbors how your grandmother started her famous pie recipe. They don’t just see the pie; they feel the love and history in every bite.

I've witnessed the interest level increase every time I tell someone how Southern Designs started. They realize that the simplest and most basic beginnings have the potential to catapult into amazing growth stories. They relate to everything in the story because it’s real, achievable, and basic at its core.

As we grew, we began to speak about what we stood for. Our niche was personalized products. First t-shirts, then signage and decor. Everything we did was intended to give the customer something unique that helped them connect in some way to their family, business, or other important item to them in their life.

Personalized canvas art product we manufactured featuring specific towns and cities throughout the United States.

As we sold more and more of these unique products, we began to receive stories from customers all over the country about how the sign or gift they purchased made them feel a certain way. It may have been a 50th anniversary gift, an address sign for a new home, or a logo sign for their new business. These stories are what drove us to continue to offer items that weren’t cookie cutter. We realized how customer stories made us feel so we began to share our own.

Every business, big or small, has its highs and lows. Maybe you had a month when sales soared or a time when things were tough. Talking about these moments makes your brand relatable. It reminds people that behind every product, there are real people—like the dedicated crafters or the friendly face answering customer tickets. It’s the same spirit we feel when supporting a local family-run restaurant or a friend’s new venture.

In the online market, real stories stand out. Sharing where you came from, your mission, and your vision isn't just about marketing—it's about connecting. When small-town entrepreneurs open up about their journey, they aren't just finding customers. They're building a community that values authenticity and shared dreams.

Personalized Content & Recommendations

In today’s digital age, it's easy to get lost in a sea of algorithms and automated responses. But as a small-town entrepreneur, you know the power of personal touch. Think about it: Isn’t it special when the barista remembers how you like your coffee? Or when the waiter at a local restaurant suggests a new dish based on what you loved eating last month? That's the magic of personalization.

Now, bring that same magic to your online brand. While algorithms can be handy for tracking what customers like or click on, there's nothing quite like a genuine personal touch to make customers feel valued.

Things we tried with our personalized products: Preview tools that took the personalization data entered and gave a live look at the design the customer would receive. Customized emails mentioning items similar to ones that the customer previously looked at. Handwritten thank you notes inside of packages once shipped.

Almost every time we adapted and created something more personalized to our customer, it worked. Other times when we would rely on automations to simply crank out more product or sales without paying attention to the messaging or connection with the customer, it failed.

Sometimes it takes beating me over the head to get me to listen. For me, I was beat over the head numerous times by my failed sales campaigns or promotions that were focused on mass production and numbers. When I focused on the customer and their needs and pain points, I always found a win.

Just like in our small towns where everyone values and appreciates the personal touch—whether it's a custom recommendation or just a friendly "hello"—bringing that feeling to your online business can bridge the digital distance. In a world full of automated responses, a little personal touch can make your brand feel like home.

Authentic Engagement on Social Media

Brands that showcase their team, behind-the-scenes moments, and engage in genuine conversations with their followers allow customers to feel like they're interacting with real people, not just a faceless entity. Replying to comments, sharing user-generated content, and hosting live Q&A sessions can be powerful tools.

Our biggest success in social media was the period of time when we consistently went live on Facebook. Each week we would setup our cameras and lights, grab a few products, and start broadcasting ourselves to the world. We would call out the names of individuals commenting and actively engage in conversation with them based on what they said. People connected with us.

One of our many Facebook ads where we loosened up and had fun with the ad.

We thought we needed a professional setup with slick camera angles and polished looks. What we really needed was simply a focus on the person on the other side of the camera. A genuine connection with them to describe the product, answer questions, and help them see why we were so passionate about what we were creating.

Another twist to this is us bringing products on Facebook Live that the customers didn’t want. Often times we would promote a new creation only to realize it didn’t solve a pain point for our viewers. Through these failures, we learned the power of the survey.

We began polling customers on their tastes and preferences. We asked them what they wanted next. We listened. Because of this, we began to find success in simply “giving the customer what they want”.

Don’t fake your interactions on social media. Humans can see through automated responses. You have to put in the time and effort to truly connect.

What Does This Mean For You?

Just be yourself. Stop overthinking your marketing and sales. Share your knowledge and personality. Showcase anything unique and relateable that will drive customers to connect with you. This is how you stand out and make a name for yourself in an ever crowded world of businesses clamoring for the dollar.